This week in Zoology, Entomology and Science

It's been a very busy week in the world of zoology and entomology and science in general.

Here are some hand-picked snippets of stories that caught my attention in the last seven days, covering a range of topics including Chagas disease, the grasslands of Santa Cruz, sex determination in ants, flight stability in fruit flies, the etiquette of insect identification, monarch butterfly migrations, gifts for science geeks, "participation points", how ants avoid collisions, pollination is more than bees, describing new moth species, how trap-jaw ants jump, how parasitic tapeworms influence ants, replacing pesticides with plants' chemical defences, Sir David Attenborough's butterfly, co-authorships, fellowships, conserving Antarctica, building better and making the most of PhDs, and Neonicotinoids and butterfly declines.


New Report on Chagas Disease Causes Storm of Concern

There has been a great increase in concern, and spread of misinformation recently in response to a press release and policy paper earlier this month. The publication advocates for more research into Chagas disease, caused by a parasitic organism, Trypanosoma cruzi, carried by assassin bugs in the subfamily Triatominae. The result in social media especially has been the misidentification of nearly every indoor "bug" or assassin bug as a "kissing bug" carrying Chagas.

Trypanosoma cruzi crithidia  by Photo Credit:Content Providers(s): CDC/Dr. Myron G. Schultz - This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #613.Note: Not all PHIL images are public domain; be sure to check copyright status and credit authors and content providers.English | Slovenščina | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

Trypanosoma cruzi crithidia by Photo Credit:Content Providers(s): CDC/Dr. Myron G. Schultz - This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #613.Note: Not all PHIL images are public domain; be sure to check copyright status and credit authors and content providers.English | Slovenščina | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

Source/read more Bug Eric

Through the Grasslands of Santa Cruz County

I love those grey-golden expanses of grass that role and wave under the low standing winter sun, and those mountain ranges with names like Mule and Mustang that cast their deep shadows. So when I had to deliver art work to my little Patagonia gallery (Creative Spirits Artists) I took my time on southbound Highway 83. I did not stop for every Hawk that perched on the power lines, but a whole heard of Pronghorns was too good. There were at least two dozens of them, grazing not too far from the road side.

Source/read more Arizona Beetles, Bugs, Birds and More

Sex Determination in Ants

Yin and Yang, Venus and Mars, the Moon and the Sun, however you want to describe it, becoming a female or a male can make a big difference in your life, and not just for human beings. Dr. Misato O. Miyakawa, a former post-doc at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) and Professor Alexander S. Mikheyev, leader of the Ecology and Evolution Unit have discovered the two ancient genetic components of sex determination in ants. This paper has just been published in PLOS Genetics

Source/read more Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University

Citation Misato O. Miyakawa, Alexander S. Mikheyev. QTL Mapping of Sex Determination Loci Supports an Ancient Pathway in Ants and Honey Bees. PLOS Genetics, 2015; 11 (11): e1005656 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1005656

How Do Fruit Flies Maintain Flight Stability?

Have you ever wondered why insects move in the funky ways they do? Or how physical laws shape the design of animals' sensors and neural computation for locomotion?

Source/read more Newswise

Insect Identifications and Etiquette

I’ve been a student of insects for most of my life, and of the many aspects of entomology that interest me, field collecting and identification remain the most enjoyable. My interest in beetles first began to gel during my days at the university (despite a thesis project focused on leafhoppers), and early in my career I settled on wood-boring beetles (principally Buprestidae and Cerambycidae) as the taxa that most interested me. To say that species identification of these beetles can be difficult is an understatement, but I was fortunate to have been helped by a number of individuals — well-established coleopterists — who freely shared their time and expertise with me during my early years and pointed me in the right direction as I began to learn the craft.

Source/read more Beetles in the Bush

Seasonal monarch butterfly migrations may help lower infection levels

Seasonal migrations may help lower infection levels in wild North American monarch butterfly populations, according to a study published November 25, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Sonia Altizer from the University of Georgia, and colleagues.

Danaus plexippus  |  Kenneth Dwain Harrelson/Wikimedia Commons  [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Danaus plexippus | Kenneth Dwain Harrelson/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Source/read more Eureka Alert

Citation Sonia Altizer, Keith A. Hobson, Andrew K. Davis, Jacobus C. De Roode, Leonard I. Wassenaar. Do Healthy Monarchs Migrate Farther? Tracking Natal Origins of Parasitized vs. Uninfected Monarch Butterflies Overwintering in Mexico. PLOS ONE, 2015; 10 (11): e0141371 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0141371

The Best Gifts of 2015 for Science Geeks

Want to find the perfect holiday gift for the science fan in your life? No need to experiment—we've done the research and selected some of the most electrifying goodies, from Plutonic pendants to mossy home décor, to fascinate your favourite brainiac.

  1. Pluto Pendant Necklace
  2. "Adventures in the Anthropocene"
  3. Women in Science Tee Shirts
  4. Planetary Glass Set
  5. Ernst Haeckel Science Illustration Pillows
  6. Marimo Moss Ball Light Bulb Terrarium
  7. Pandemic Legacy Board Game
  8. MEL Chemistry Sets
  9. Petrified Wood Cheese Tray
  10. Edison Touch Lamp

Source/read more Smithsonian Mag

Why I don’t use “participation” points

Do you think giving students “participation” points is a good idea? I don’t.

I’ve been promising for over two years that I’d be writing about why class credit for participation is a Bad Idea. So here’s the post!

People put “participation” points* in the syllabus for a variety of reasons. In my experience, professors count 5-10% of the total grade towards “participation,” and sometimes more. It seems that a student’s level of “participation” can make the difference of a whole letter grade, by making an otherwise-B into a C if a student gets a poor participation score, or can lift a B into an A if they get full credit for participation. In most of the syllabi I’ve reviewed, these participation points are rarely calculated quantitatively. A student could go into the final exam without having any idea what their participation grade is. That seems wonky, doesn’t it?

Source/read more Small Pond Science

Avoiding collision leads to common routes

Ants, when walking around in cluttered environments, are known to follow a limited number of common routes. Researchers show that similar routes emerge when an algorithm for collision avoidance, based on the apparent motion of obstacles, is combined with a target direction.

Source/read more Science Daily

Citation Olivier J. N. Bertrand, Jens P. Lindemann, Martin Egelhaaf. A Bio-inspired Collision Avoidance Model Based on Spatial Information Derived from Motion Detectors Leads to Common Routes. PLOS Computational Biology, 2015; 11 (11): e1004339 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004339

Pollination is more than bees

Other creatures visit more flowers than bees do, and may be almost as important in pollinating crops.

Romina Rader at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, and her colleagues analysed data from 39 field studies of pollination by honey bees, other bees and other insects, including flies, beetles, moths and ants. They found that other insects carried out 25–50% of all visits to crop flowers. Although these 'non-bees' were less effective at pollinating on each visit, their increased visits made them roughly as effective as bees.

The contribution of different insect groups to flower visitation across the 37 crop studies for which visitation data were available. Crops are ordered, left to right, from mostly bee-dominated to mostly non-bee–dominated. (From Rader et al. 2015.)

The contribution of different insect groups to flower visitation across the 37 crop studies for which visitation data were available. Crops are ordered, left to right, from mostly bee-dominated to mostly non-bee–dominated. (From Rader et al. 2015.)

Source/read more Nature

Citation Romina Rader, Ignasi Bartomeus, Lucas A. Garibaldi, Michael P. D. Garratt, Brad G. Howlett, Rachael Winfree, Saul A. Cunningham, Margaret M. Mayfield, Anthony D. Arthur, Georg K. S. Andersson, Riccardo Bommarco, Claire Brittain, Luísa G. Carvalheiro, Natacha P. Chacoff, Martin H. Entling, Benjamin Foully, Breno M. Freitas, Barbara Gemmill-Herren, Jaboury Ghazoul, Sean R. Griffin, Caroline L. Gross, Lina Herbertsson, Felix Herzog, Juliana Hipólito, Sue Jaggar, Frank Jauker, Alexandra-Maria Klein, David Kleijn, Smitha Krishnan, Camila Q. Lemos, Sandra A. M. Lindström, Yael Mandelik, Victor M. Monteiro, Warrick Nelson, Lovisa Nilsson, David E. Pattemore, Natália de O. Pereira, Gideon Pisanty, Simon G. Potts, Menno Reemer, Maj Rundlöf, Cory S. Sheffield, Jeroen Scheper, Christof Schüepp, Henrik G. Smith, Dara A. Stanley, Jane C. Stout, Hajnalka Szentgyörgyi, Hisatomo Taki, Carlos H. Vergara, Blandina F. Viana, and Michal Woyciechowski. Non-bee insects are important contributors to global crop pollination. PNAS, November 2015 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1517092112

Get to know them faster: Alternative time-efficient way to describe new moth species

Having collected thousands of moth and butterfly species from across Costa Rica, famous ecologist Daniel Janzen, University of Pennsylvania, and his team were yet to find out many of their names. When they sought help from Dr. Gunnar Brehm, the taxonomist realised he needed too much time to describe species in the framework of an extensive revision of the genus, especially as there are still only a few biologists skilled to do this.

Source/read more Eureka Alert

Citation Gunnar Brehm. Three new species of Hagnagora Druce, 1885 (Lepidoptera, Geometridae, Larentiinae) from Ecuador and Costa Rica and a concise revision of the genus. ZooKeys, 2015; 537: 131 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.537.6090

Trap-Jaw Ant Jumps with Its Legs or Its Mandibles

Trap-jaw ants have powerful mandibles that they use to capture and crush prey, and to fling themselves from danger. Now new research shows that a species of trap-jaw ant jumps with its legs, a previously unseen jumping behaviour, rather than its jaws. The discovery makes this species, Odontomachus rixosus, the only species of ant that can jump with either its legs or its mandibles.

Odontomachus rixosus  |  Bernard Dupont./Flickr  [ CC BY-SA 2.0 ]

Odontomachus rixosus | Bernard Dupont./Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Source/read more Entomology Today

Parasitic tapeworm influences the behaviour and lifespan of uninfected members of ant colonies

Aggressive behaviour of entire ant colony reduced / Lifespan of uninfected nest-mates curtailed but increased in infected ants.

Ants are quite often infected by parasites. For example, tapeworms use ants as intermediate hosts for a part of their development phase before they complete their life cycle in their main host. Researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have now discovered that such parasites not only change the appearance and behaviour of infected ants but also have an effect on the behaviour of uninfected members of the colony. The overall aggressiveness of an ant colony diminishes if it contains members who are infected with a parasite. The investigations being undertaken by a team of Mainz-based evolutionary biologists headed by Professor Susanne Foitzik are designed to uncover the effects that parasites have on animal societies and to find out how the parasites manipulate the behaviour of their hosts in order to better survive. Their findings have recently been published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Source/read more Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

Citation Sara Beros, Evelien Jongepier, Felizitas Hagemeier, Susanne Foitzik. The parasite's long arm: a tapeworm parasite induces behavioural changes in uninfected group members of its social host. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2015; 282 (1819): 20151473 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2015.1473

Chemicals That Make Plants Defend Themselves Could Replace Pesticides

Chemical triggers that make plants defend themselves against insects could replace pesticides, causing less damage to the environment. New research published in Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters identifies five chemicals that trigger rice plants to fend off a common pest – the white-backed planthopper, Sogatella furcifera.

We used the relative induction of GUS activity as a screening tool for identifying new chemical elicitors that induce resistance in rice to the white-backed planthopper  Sogatella furcifera . (From He et al. 2015.)

We used the relative induction of GUS activity as a screening tool for identifying new chemical elicitors that induce resistance in rice to the white-backed planthopper Sogatella furcifera. (From He et al. 2015.)

Source/read more Elsevier

Citation Xingrui He, Zhaonan Yu, Shaojie Jiang, Peizhi Zhang, Zhicai Shang, Yonggen Lou, Jun Wu. Finding new elicitors that induce resistance in rice to the white-backed planthopper Sogatella furcifera. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters, 2015; 25 (23): 5601 DOI: 10.1016/j.bmcl.2015.10.041

New Butterfly Species Named after Sir David Attenborough

Add another item to the list of insects that have been named after the British naturalist and filmmaker David Attenborough. Last year a 20-million-year-old pygmy locust was named after him, as was a new species of beetle.

Now, for the first time, a butterfly has been named after him. It’s a black-eyed satyr that it is known only from lowland tropical forests of the upper Amazon basin in Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil. In fact, Euptychia attenboroughi has such a restricted distribution that all of its known sites lie within 500 kilometres from each other in the northwest of the upper Amazon basin.

Source/read more Entomology Today

Researchers wrestle with co-authorship

The prickly topic of how to assign credit to scientists flares up on social media.

Questions of paper authorship have been plaguing scientists on social media recently. Who should come first? And who deserves to be listed at all? When it comes to papers with numerous authors, the publishing process can get messy. For instance, when Dorothy Bishop, a psychologist at the University of Oxford, UK, found herself trying to review a paper blemished with mistakes, she tweeted:

Source/read more Nature

Fellowships are the future

Postdocs need a level of autonomy to get the best out of their position, say Viviane Callier and Jessica Polka.

Much scientific research could not function without postdocs. They do the research outlined in a grant — moving the work of the principal investigator (PI) forward, producing papers and helping to win grants. Yet too many postdocs end up doing work that does not benefit their scientific and intellectual development. They are shut out of developing ownership of a research programme, a step that is crucial for launching the next stage of their career.

Source/read more Nature

Conservation: It is rational to protect Antarctica

We are dismayed that the international commission that oversees the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources has voted against establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) around Antarctica for the fifth consecutive time. These MPAs are designed to protect wildlife hotspots of world significance.

Source/read more Nature

How to build a better PhD

There are too many PhD students for too few academic jobs — but with imagination, the problem could be solved.

“Since 1977, we've been recommending that graduate departments partake in birth control, but no one has been listening,” said Paula Stephan to more than 200 postdocs and PhD students at a symposium in Boston, Massachusetts, in October this year.

Source/read more Nature

Make the most of PhDs

The number of people with science doctorates is rapidly increasing, but there are not enough academic jobs for them all. Graduate programmes should be reformed to meet students’ needs.

It is hard to argue against the idea that a workforce should be highly educated. The media, politicians and universities all believe that a scientific background will not only benefit individuals, but also drive science, innovation and the economy. As a result, the number of people entering higher education in the sciences and engineering has been on the rise for decades. Between 1995 and 2012, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported an overall increase in university graduation rates of 22 percentage points. In the same time frame, the PhD production rate has doubled, even though PhDs account for only a small percentage of higher-education graduations.

Source/read more Nature

Neonicotinoid pesticides linked to butterfly declines in the UK

The use of neonicotinoid pesticides may be contributing to the decline of butterflies in the UK, a new study by the Universities of Stirling and Sussex in partnership with Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has revealed.

Thymelicus lineola  |  Korall/Wikimedia Commons  [ CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

Thymelicus lineola | Korall/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Source/read more University of Stirling

Citation Andre S. Gilburn, Nils Bunnefeld, John McVean Wilson, Marc S. Botham, Tom M. Brereton, Richard Fox, Dave Goulson. Are neonicotinoid insecticides driving declines of widespread butterflies? PeerJ, 2015; 3: e1402 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.1402

Mermaidgate: why I hate Animal Planet and mermaids

“It pays to keep an open mind,
but not so open your brains fall out"
~ Carl Sagan.

Recently, I've had a uni friend, Lucy, staying with me from Melbourne while she attended her Insect-Plant Interactions intensive school on campus. I met Lucy last year - we were both selected to travel to Bhutan for fieldwork - and the other night after dinner I started to tell her about an online experience I had in June 2013 about...

m e r m a i d s .

My "interest" in the topic of mermaids actually started with this tongue-in-cheek post to the Zoology @ UNE Facebook group on 29 May 2013:

Animal Planet had recently aired the mermaid "documentary" The New Evidence (which had picked up for where the earlier The Body Found had left off), and the Internet and social media were going nuts for two reasons:

  1. Stupid people either believed the documentary was real, or
  2. Smart people were angrily criticising Animal Planet for being so irresponsible.

A little over a week later, on 7 June 2013, a fellow Zoology student (well, she was at the time but I believe she is no longer enrolled in the degree) posted this at 12:51 pm:

The beginning of Mermaidgate.png

And so began what I have affectionately coined "Mermaidgate".

The last comment for the day was posted at 9:25 pm - almost 9 hours later! Now, I know debates/discussions on public forums can rage for days/weeks/months/years, but this is a social media forum for university students studying zoological science. There is an assumption that all participants will have a certain level of scientific literacy.


Two first-year (I believe) students, based their beliefs and arguments that mermaids were real on a fake documentary aired on Animal Planet. It was disheartening to say the least.

In a failed attempt to undo some of the damage, I posted links to credible blogs that were critical of Animal Planet and urged them, as budding scientists, to read them:


I tried reasoning with them; I tried appealing to their presumed value for zoological science and their respect for the scientific method:

"There are so many REAL and fascinating species in our world. I've only touched on a few parasites! I plan to focus my energies on fact rather than fantasy, evidence rather than imagination. I'll leave the fantasy and imagination out of my science degree. I believe as budding scientists we should think creatively, but mermaids and science do not mix. Mermaids are not real."


"I think healthy debate is valid and purposeful - how else are we to challenge ideas that may have been put forward a hundred or more years ago, but have since been found to be lacking?"


"I think the Animal Planet fauxumentary was not only irresponsible, but detracts from some of the real issues. If only people could speak up so passionately and vehemently about overfishing of sharks or marine pollution or anything else that's real and that deserves or time and energy. The arguments that have erupted all over social media about mermaids are scary because it shows how easily rumours are spread and how hard they are to dispel once they're 'out there'. The damage is done."


"We, as students of science, should be taking responsibility for correcting some of the falsities out there. We can't get them all, but we can spread the word."


"It is so easy to be led astray these days, with social media at our finger tips. BUT it is so easy to check facts first, before hitting that 'like' button or 'share' button or 'tweet' button."


As a result of Animal Planet's irresponsibility, Dr Tommy Leung, Evolutionary Biologist and Parasitologist, now gives two lectures to first-year zoology students on this topic and on science in the media in general.

His reaction, at the time, to his very own students actually arguing for the existence of mermaids was priceless:

A few months later, I was invited to a friend's 40th birthday party and the fancy dress theme was I can't believe you wore that and yep - you guessed it - this was my costume:

My mind still boggles at what happened 2 years, 5 months, and 14 days ago, and I still don't know whether to laugh or cry sometimes. I do, however, take great pleasure in telling this story to other people and watching their reactions...

If you're interested and want to laugh and/or cry yourself, you can read the entire thread here (I have censored everyone's names and photos except my own for privacy reasons).


Science by Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

This is an essay I wrote in 2013.

At the time, I was President of the Zoology Society of UNE and in charge of setting up and administering the Society's blog and Twitter accounts, so I was keenly interested in the role social media had to play in science communication.



In the era of social media, tools such as blogs and Twitter offer a powerful method for scientists to act as a public voice for science. In spite of the wide variety of types of online conversations and the information being disseminated, scientists are increasingly turning to social media platforms as a way to share research findings (both theirs and others), ideas and opinions on scientific matters. Social media forums offer the ultimate platform for extensive scientific discussions, both preprint commentary and post-publication review, and tools such as blogs and Twitter allow for fast-paced conversations about issues that scientists want and need to discuss now. It has been proposed that the ‘online scientific community could become a powerful force for promoting important causes and connecting with policymakers’ (Bik & Goldstein 2013). Two topics that have risen to noteworthy prominence in social media are #arseniclife (to use its Twitter hashtag) and climate change.

In 2010, a research paper was published online by the peer-reviewed journal Science, and its authors claimed to have discovered a bacterium that could grow by using arsenic instead of phosphorus. The importance of the discovery was alluded to in a NASA media advisory four days prior to publishing (the journal article was under embargo by Science), and a press conference was held by NASA when the embargo was lifted. Within days it was reviewed and criticised across multiple social media forums by many scientists, including Rosie Redfield. Despite the media advisory and press conference, the authors felt a media forum was not the proper setting to respond to the criticisms levelled at their research, and refused to respond unless the discussions occurred within the peer-reviewed environment, which they eventually did – but eighteen months later. On the topic of climate change, there has been much discussion between some of the different ‘sides’ of the debate: those who agree climate change is real and humans are the primary cause, those who remain skeptical in the true meaning of the word, and those who refuse to acknowledge the facts and the science behind global warming. Social media provides a platform for extensive discussions and, for the topic of climate change in particular, it also has the capacity to bring together ‘disparate resources into an organised whole and weed out untrustworthy sources’ (Bik & Goldstein 2013). These examples are just two ways in which both society and the scientific community are embracing the concept of ‘science by social media’ – there are and will be many more.


Arsenic-munching bacteria

On 2 December 2010, a research paper with the innocuous title ‘A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus’ was published online by Science. (It appeared in print six months later on 3 June 2011.) The authors of the paper suggested it was possible that phosphorus, sulphur, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon were not the only elements that could make up lipids, proteins and nucleic acids, and they described a bacterium that was able to ‘substitute arsenic for phosphorus to sustain its growth’ (Wolfe-Simon et al. 2011). On the same day, NASA (2010) held a news conference to discuss the paper’s astrobiology claims, which had been advertised four days earlier via a Media Advisory and stated the findings ‘will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life’. This ‘terse, mind-bending announcement’ by NASA, which was probably intended only for the scientifically-literate who would understand the real purpose of the press conference, was a example of ‘woefully 20th-century thinking’ (Zimmer 2011). The advisory was rapidly taken up by bloggers across the world and news that alien life forms had (possibly) been discovered ‘zipped through the media ecosystem, eventually ending up on the websites of the major news organisations’ (Zimmer 2011).

Two days later, on 4 December, Rosie Redfield (2010), Professor of Zoology at the University of British Columbia, published a post on her blog, RRResearch, which Zimmer (2010) writing for the Slate blog on 7 December described as a ‘scathing attack’. Redfield’s post included the following criticisms of the Wolfe-Simon et al. (2011) paper:

“NASA’s shameful analysis of the alleged bacteria in the Mars meteorite made me very suspicious of their microbiology, an attitude that’s only strengthened by my reading of this paper.  Basically, it doesn’t present ANY convincing evidence that arsenic has been incorporated into DNA (or any other biological molecule).
“Bottom line:  Lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information.  The mass spec measurements may be very well done (I lack expertise here), but their value is severely compromised by the poor quality of the inputs.  If this data was presented by a PhD student at their committee meeting, I’d send them back to the bench to do more cleanup and controls. There’s a difference between controls done to genuinely test your hypothesis and those done when you just want to show that your hypothesis is true.  The authors have done some of the latter, but not the former.
“I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda.  I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.”

Zimmer (2010) contacted two of the paper’s authors for their responses to the criticisms, but ‘both politely declined by email’:

“We cannot indiscriminately wade into a media forum for debate at this time,” declared senior author Ronald Oremland of the U.S. Geological Survey. “If we are wrong, then other scientists should be motivated to reproduce our findings. If we are right (and I am strongly convinced that we are) our competitors will agree and help to advance our understanding of this phenomenon. I am eager for them to do so.”
“Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated,” wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. “The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner.”

Redfield conceded that the scientists had the right to hold off responding to their critics (Zimmer 2010) and she wrote a formal letter to Science (which she also published on her blog), detailing her objections, including that contamination of the biological samples was not meticulously eliminated, and it was published as a technical comment (Redfield 2011). University of California evolutionary biologist, Jonathan Eisen, however, was not so accommodating and suggested the authors’ refusal to address the criticisms outside of journals was ‘absurd’ and emphasised that ‘they carried out science by press release and press conference’ and it was therefore hypocritical to now restrict their responses to the scientific literature (Zimmer 2010).

There are no fewer than eight Technical Comments and a Response appended to the original Wolfe-Simon et al. (2011) research article in Science, plus an Editor’s Note and a News & Analysis piece by Pennisi (2011), which stated the debate ‘over whether a bacterium could thrive on arsenic ... is finally being aired in the scientific literature rather than on blogs’. The proper scientific discourse that Wolfe-Simon had invited in her communication to Zimmer (2010) was answered by James B. Cotner and Edward K. Hall; Steven A. Benner; B. Schoepp-Cothenet, W. Nitschke, L. M. Barge, A. Ponce, M. J. Russell and A. I. Tsapin; Patricia L. Foster; István Csabai and Eörs Szathmáry; David W. Borhani; Stefan Oehler and, of course, Rosemary J. Redfield (2011).

Then, at the end of January 2012, Redfield and her colleagues submitted a manuscript to Science, in which they ‘found that arsenate does not contribute to growth ... when phosphate is limiting and that DNA purified from cells grown with limiting phosphate and abundant arsenate does not exhibit the spontaneous hydrolysis expected of arsenate ester bonds’; additionally their mass spectrometry results demonstrated that the DNA contained free arsenate in only trace amounts and no detectable covalently bound arsenate (Reaves et al. 2012). The Oremland challenge was also taken up by Erb et al. (2012), who concluded that while the bacteria was arsenate-resistant it was also still phosphate-dependent.

In his Slate blog post, Zimmer (2010) made the closing comment, ‘this controversy may be burning brightly at the moment, but it probably won’t burn for long’. The controversy, however, has been played out on numerous social media forums for almost three years, including science blogs and Twitter. In fact, the first Twitter #arseniclife hashtag was used on 2 December 2010 and the most recent on 27 September 2013 – and there are quite literally thousands of Tweets on the topic in between (Twitter 2013).

The pertinent point raised by all of this online chatter is that the #arseniclife research paper was no longer just a scientific account about supposed arsenic-munching bacteria – it had become an example of how science by social media works, how Twitter and science blogs provide an immediate platform for public analysis and criticism, how social media is changing the way science is packaged and delivered to the wider world, and how the Internet has the potential to make science better. The world no longer has to wait (or always pay) to get quality scientific information. Nor do scientists have to wait to air their criticisms anymore, as Rosie Redfield clearly demonstrated.

Science by social media has its detractors – those who see it as a free-for-all without peer-review – but, as Rosen (2012) so fluently described it, ‘the science and surrounding reporting coming from [social media] looks smarter, cooler-headed, and more solid than that emanating from the older organs’. In comparing science by social media versus traditional science publishing in the context of the #arseniclife paper, ‘no greater stain exists than the mere fact of the study’s publication in that holy of holies, the peer-reviewed pages of Science’ (Rosen 2012). Shelley D. Copley of the University of Colorado told Zimmer (2010), ‘This paper should not have been published’ and, to date, it has not been retracted by Science (Retraction Watch 2013) – only refuted – and this fact demonstrates that social media provided a better peer-review service than did the journal; ‘the vetting that should have happened before publication happened after’ (Rosen 2012). As Battles (2010), a writer for the Gearfuse: Earth & Space blog, summarised in his post:

“The scientists’ onstage tensions, like the grumblings of colleagues elsewhere, are entirely healthy expressions of the human reality of science – but perhaps a NASA press conference was not their ideal setting. Results like Wolfe-Simon’s would be better presented in a journal committed to open access. In future, NASA would do well to let the process play out before calling for the biology textbooks to be rewritten.”

In the #arseniclife case study, the long held notion that the ‘proper way to engage in a scientific discourse’, as communicated by Wolfe-Simon to Zimmer (2010), will produce better science and therefore better science reporting was turned on its head. These so-called proper methods resulted in ‘uninformed hype, poor science and kept the sources – both human and paper – away from a conversation that was simmering with genuine enthusiasm and curiosity’ (Rosen 2012).

Science is about curiosity, testing hypotheses, making mistakes, learning, discovery and much, much more. It is no longer bound to the traditional peer-reviewed journals, and valuable scientific discussions are taking place across platforms such as Twitter and science blogs. As Jonathan Eisen told Rosen (2012):

“There is nothing in that system that says that [science] only works in this system that we have of peer reviewed journals. It is true that the system we have has done a decent job for years. And there is no doubt in my mind that the web, social media, and other novel forms of communication can enrich science.”

Zimmer (2011) explained that both the paper’s authors and NASA attempted to downplay the social media criticisms by resorting to the ‘bloggers-in-their-pyjamas card, but it was a losing hand’. Firstly, many of the people who were communicating via Twitter and blogs were actually practicing scientists wearing lab coats who wanted to have an open discussion. Secondly, while Zimmer’s (2010) invitation to respond in those early days was rejected by two of the leading authors, Wolfe-Simon has since delivered a high-profile TED lecture and appeared in a full-page spread in Glamour magazine, which contradicted her own definition of ‘the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse’.

To dismiss social media as an improper forum for science and accurate scientific reporting is not only naïve, it is also ignorant. Such an attitude has the potential to both alienate the people who reject it too quickly and to insult the many educated people who use the social media platform as an outlet for robust scientific discussion.


Wake up and smell the methane

Skepticism in science is beneficial. Science should be skeptical, because legitimate skepticism means taking into account all of the evidence before coming to a conclusion. Looking at the arguments expressed by climate change (so-called) ‘skeptics’, however, a common theme emerges: cherry picking of data while rejecting results that don’t support the arguments. This is not technically skepticism – it is wilful ignorance of the facts and scientific evidence. A more accurate term for people who demonstrate such behaviour is ‘denialists’.

“Scientists look for independent lines of evidence pointing to a single, consistent answer. The full body of evidence in climate science shows us a number of distinct, discernible human fingerprints on climate change. Measurements of the type of carbon found in the atmosphere show that fossil fuel burning is dramatically increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Satellite and surface measurements find that extra CO2 is trapping heat that would otherwise escape out to space. There are a number of warming patterns consistent with an increased greenhouse effect. The whole structure of our atmosphere is changing. The evidence for human caused global warming is not just based on theory or computer models but on many independent, direct observations made in the real world” (Cook 2010).

According to a collaborative effort between Dr Jan Dash and Dr John Cook, some of the top myths surrounding global warming and climate change are (1) climate has changed before, (2) there’s no consensus, (3) models are unreliable, and (4) it hasn’t warmed since 1998 (Skeptical Science 2013). The myths and countering scientific evidence are discussed below.

Climate has changed before. Richard S. Lindzen is a well known skeptic of the scientific consensus about climate change and critic of what he has termed ‘climate alarmism’, which he blames on climate scientists who have bowed to political pressures. Writing for the Doomed Planet blog, his post titled ‘Resisting climate hysteria: a case against precipitous climate action’ claimed that climate is always changing. He explained that the Earth has experienced warm periods and ice ages, that ice ages have occurred for the last 700,000 years in approximately 100,000-year cycles, and that earlier warm periods appear to have been even hotter than what the Earth is currently experiencing, in spite of CO2 levels being lower than they are now (Lindzen 2009). But what does the science actually say? The ‘climate has changed before’ argument proposes that because climate has changed naturally in the past humans are not responsible for the present global warming. This is not the case, however, as has been demonstrated by peer-reviewed research (e.g. most recently Huber & Caballero 2011; Valentine et al. 2011; Westerhold et al. 2011; Yang et al. 2012).

There’s no consensus. The Petition Project features the signatures of over 31,000 scientists who support the statement:

“There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the forseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environment of the Earth” (Petition Project 2013).

When scientists stop arguing about a topic it can be assumed that a consensus has been reached. Many different disciplines combine to inform the field of climate studies, and consensus about climate change is evidenced by the number of scientists who have ceased arguing about the cause – nearly all of them! A survey conducted by Oreskes (2004) of 928 peer-reviewed papers published between 1993 and 2003 on the subject of ‘global climate change’ established that not one single paper discarded the consensus position that global warming is a result of human activities. A subsequent study by Anderegg et al. (2010), which took into account the publication data of 1,372 climate researchers, found that 97-98 per cent of the field’s most actively publishing climate scientists supported the IPCC’s view of anthropogenic climate change. Additionally, the study compared the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the ‘unconvinced’ 2-3 per cent to that of the convinced researchers, and found they were substantially lower. This was supported by Doran and Zimmerman (2009), who explained that ‘the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.’ Amongst climate science experts, the consensus is undeniable: global warming is caused by humans.

Models are unreliable. In an interview with the National Posts’ Lawrence Solomon (2007), Freeman Dyson, a mathematician and physicist, claimed that climate modelling is full of ‘fudge factors’ that are fitted to the current situation to ensure the modelling roughly agrees with the observed data. No grounds exist, therefore, to suppose that such fudging would give the right behaviour in a world with elevated levels of atmospheric CO2. The science, however, says that modelling has successfully reproduced global temperatures since 1900 and, far from being exaggerated, predictions may actually be conservative. For example, The Copenhagen Diagnosis evaluated tide gauges, satellite observation and the IPCC’s model-based predictions to show how they compared (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Sea level change from 1970 to 2010 (Allison et al. 2009).

Figure 1: Sea level change from 1970 to 2010 (Allison et al. 2009).

Models by their very nature, however, have limits and uncertainties, but they are improving over time. With more sources of real-world data, including satellite observations, the output of climate models is being continually refined to enhance their usefulness and power. Many of the incidents for which empirical evidence now exists were predicted by climate modelling – for example, Atlantic hurricanes (Chen & Lin 2011) and oscillations (Casado & Pastor 2012). Thus, models can be a reliable predictor of climate change.

It hasn’t warmed since 1988. The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC – and not to be confused with the IPCC) would have the world believe that global warming ceased in 1988 (unpublished data). The NICPP’s (2009) publication, ‘Climate Change Reconsidered’, reported temperature data that indicated a dramatic incline in the warming trend in the first ten years of the 21st century, and that this had been preceded by a comparably more moderate warming trend in the preceding two decades. To assert global warming ceased in 1998, however, ignores a basic physical truth – the atmosphere and land make up only a tiny fraction of the planet’s climate. To see the wider picture of climate change, the Earth's entire heat content must be considered, and when it is it plainly demonstrates that the planet is still accumulating heat – warming has continued since 1998 (Hunt 2011; Murphy et al. 2009; Lean & Rind 2009). Based on surface temperature records, 1988 the hottest year on record but, according to Fawcett (2007), this ‘record’ needs to take into account that in the same year an unusually strong El Niño triggered heat transfer to the atmosphere from the Pacific Ocean. As a result, the planet experienced higher than average surface temperatures and, since then, moderate La Niña conditions have had a cooling effect on temperatures globally (Fawcett 2007).

The Skeptical Science website was the initial source for most of the information presented in this section, ‘Wake up and smell the methane’ – both the myths and the countering scientific arguments – with peer-reviewed literature subsequently added. The Internet is awash with material about climate change and global warming. On the social media platform, much of this information can be found in blogs – both reliable and unreliable. They may take the form of accurate reporting of peer-reviewed scientific research, such as Skeptical Science, or they could be the various soapboxes of unapologetic denialists (e.g. Andrew Bolt’s Herald Sun blog). Thanks to the era of social media, almost anyone has the opportunity to express their opinion online – whether they are scientifically ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. In the realm of global warming and climate change, social media has become the virtual battleground between good and evil – between proper science and outright denial. Both sides appear just as convincing, but here is where the peer-review process comes to the forefront. The distinction between a ‘good blog’ and a ‘bad blog’ is quite easily determined by the calibre of evidence being presented. Social media forums may attempt to simplify the data on climate change so ordinary people can understand it, but a high quality science blog, for example, will still cite the peer-reviewed studies the author is basing his or her views on. Unreliable blogs may appear to do the same, but it only takes a little curiosity and some resourcefulness to check the references and separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff.



With each day that passes, science is becoming less and less of a monologue delivered to a very specific audience. According to Small (2011), ‘the days of scientists communicating only with each other, in the languages of our individual disciplines, and relying on science journalists to translate for the public, are rapidly coming to an end’. Scientists pride themselves on ‘doing meaningful, cutting-edge research and publishing it in the top-tier journals of [their] field’ (Wilcox 2012). Such publications, however, generally communication science to other scientists and most articles are only available to paying subscribers. Even those that are ‘open access’ are full of jargon, which acts as a language barrier, preventing those who wish to become more scientifically literate from understanding. Correspondingly, science has to find its place online and be actively engaged in social media forums – whether it’s critiquing research and discussing findings as per the #arseniclife example or, in the case of climate change, synthesising information and correcting falsehoods. The digital age means that scientists need to be connected with new opportunities to communicate with a wider audience. Sturgis and Allum (2004) suggested that, even though science is generally trusted and accepted, confidence can be lost when it comes to issues such as climate change; additionally, religious beliefs, personal values and the opinions of trusted people all interact with a person’s scientific understanding. ‘By connecting scientists with the rest of the world, social media is the most powerful tool available for us to shift this paradigm [and] it is an integral part of conducting and disseminating science in today’s world’ (Wilcox 2012).



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